Monday, April 23, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 23: Lincoln, Jackson and the Slave Power

There is certainly no shortage of books about Abraham Lincoln. But with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War coming up in four years, we're sure to see many more.

Back in 1982 in
Lincoln and His Legend New York Review of Books 07/15/1982 issue (behind subscription, unfortunately), George Fredrickson reviewed two books, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings by Charles Strozier and Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality by Dwight Anderson. Both are "psychohistories", and much of his review focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches.

I haven't read either of those books, and he doesn't make them sound terribly valuable. Here I want to focus on a couple of things that he mentions that are important in Lincoln's career and the politics of the time, apart from any "psychohistory" considerations.

One is a speech from early in Lincoln's political career (1938), which is known as the Lyceum speech. Fredrickson writes:

Those seeking to relate the "conflicted" private man to the great statesman have relied heavily on Lincoln's first major public address, a lecture he gave before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield in 1838. Ostensibly a call for law and order in the face of the wave of mob violence in Jacksonian America, the speech contains what strikes many readers as a curiously ambivalent warning against the rise of an American Caesar or Napoleon. "Towering genius," the young Lincoln proclaimed, will not be satisfied to follow in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers and defend the existing republic. "It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen." According to Edmund Wilson, Lincoln already had grandiose dreams of his own destiny and was deliberately projecting himself into the role that he pretended to be warning his audience against. Subsequent analysts of Lincoln's developing image of himself, including the two under review, have offered more complex interpretations, but they have followed Wilson's example in viewing this passage as a window on Lincoln's psyche and a key to the personal motivations behind his public career.(my emphasis)
As Fredrickson explains, Lincoln's reference to "towering genius" referred primarily to Democrat Andrew Jackson, who had recently completed his two terms as President:

During the 1830s, Whigs — and especially Whig lawyers — often called for devotion to law and order and warned against Caesarean demagogues. The evil genius they generally had in mind was Andrew Jackson, who had enormously enlarged the powers of the presidency by persuading the electorate that he was the direct representative of the popular will. Whigs like Lincoln saw the danger of an elective tyranny in Jacksonian democracy and viewed mob violence as a sign that the common people were following Jackson's bad example by putting popular emotion ahead of a "rational" adherence to established legal and constitutional procedures. The nonpartisan occasion for the Lyceum speech prevented Lincoln from making these political implications explicit; but in other early addresses he inveighed against the Jacksonian Democrats for fostering a "mobocratic spirit." If Lincoln waxed strangely lyrical in describing the would-be tyrants against which the public must be on guard, it might have been because he shared his era's sentimental fascination with amoral geniuses. (Napoleon or Byron could cast a strange spell on puritanical, middle-class Americans.) (my emphasis)
I've written a number of times here about the contradictory nature of Jacksonian democracy. Lincoln represented the genuine democratic and liberating trend of Jacksonian democracy, even though as a Whig and later a Republican he did not identify with Jackson's party. It's notably that even Roger Taney, who had served as Jackson's attorney general and was appointed as Chief Justic of the Supreme Court by Jackson - the same Roger Taney who wrote the notorious proslavery Dred Scott decision - even as conservative a Jacksonian as Taney remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

Lincoln's declaration of the "genius" on the Jackson mold in this sentence actually captures the basic contradiction of Jacksonian democracy: "It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen."

Lincoln later left behind his Whiggish apprehension of the unwashed common people tarnishing democracy by using it to defend their interest against concentrated wealth.

Fredrickson also talks about the Republican notions of a Slave Power conspiracy against the free states:

[Strozier] attempts to explain the sectional crisis in general as a collective expression of narcissistic rage. Such literal-minded efforts to explain group behavior by individual psychology require a leap of faith that most historians are unwilling to make. ...

This approach, it seems to me, substitutes dubious theorizing for a close examination of the historical record. The crisis of the 1850s may have had an irrational component, but most of what happened can be explained as a conflict of interests and ideologies rooted in the objective fact that one section was committed to slavery and the other to free labor. There were mistakes and misconceptions, to be sure, but most of them were founded on circumstantial evidence that only appears misleading in the hindsight of historians.

A good case in point is the one that Strozier seizes on as evidence of pathological rage — the belief of Lincoln and others that there was a conspiracy in the 1850s to extend slavery and make its protection the dominant concern of the nation as a whole. There was no such conspiracy in the sense of a well coordinated plot by a few powerful people. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and the effort made by a Democratic administration in 1858 to admit Kansas to the Union under a fraudulent, pro-slavery constitution could all be interpreted by sane and reasonable men as deliberate efforts to strengthen the power of the slave states at the expense of those committed to free labor.

When Lincoln and the Republicans declared their resistance to these policies they were not being "paranoid," but were confronting a genuine challenge to deeply held convictions about what was best for the country. Strozier's interpretation, stripped of its psychoanalytic paraphernalia, amounts to a rehash of the "revisionist" interpretation of the causes of the  Civil War that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. This viewpoint - which attributed a "needless war" to "hysteria," extremism, and irrational leadership - has proved unacceptable to a later generation of historians. For the past two decades, most writers on the origins of the Civil War have assumed that the antislaveryideas and ideologies that provoked Southern secession are not reducible to psychopathology but deserve to be respected as rational expressions of moral commitment. The fact that individuals may invest their personal conflicts in a public cause — as Lincoln may have done to some degree — does not justify treating the cause itself as the neurosis of an individual writ large.(my emphasis)
It seems that this approach of trying to discredit Union and abolitionist leaders by trying to make them sound crazy or fanatical is still a common one among Lost Cause devotees.

Speaking of conspiracies and conspiracy theories, Fredrickson recommends Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Thomas Reed Turner (1982) as "a well-researched and judicious study" that "can be strongly recommended to those who are curious about what can actually be proved about the assassination and its aftermath".

Fredrickson also makes an interesting observation about Lincoln's public references to God in his Civil War speeches:

To his credit, he eschewed the popular jingoistic theory that God was on the side of the North, and conceded that the Almighty had his own purposes, which probably involved punishing the nation as a whole for its long history of tolerating slavery.
If only our pious Republican leaders of our own day had that level of humility in their assumptions about knowing the will of the Almighty ... 

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